Supermarkets, sourcing & social responsibility


I went into Morrison’s the other day, not my usual supermarket but as I was passing I popped in. As I browsed at the fish counter I could not see any that were MSC Certified, so I asked the chap manning the counter. He looked at me blankly when I mentioned the acronym, so I explained about how the Marine Stewardship Council give certification to sustainable fisheries, he still did not seem to know what I was talking about and wandered off to ask another employee. Result, I walked out fishless.

This is typical supermarket behaviour, it’s not the first time people don’t seem to know (or frankly, care) about sustainability or ethical criteria. But it’s not really the employee’s fault, it’s just the supermarket culture – sell as much as we can, as cheaply as we can, as fast as we can (and make a big fat profit while we’re at it). If you start asking questions, nobody knows the answers.

Supermarkets often make uncovering how products were farmed/made/produced very difficult, they are not transparent. How would one find out which farm a chicken came from? All the information on the packet entails is which country it is from and if you’re lucky a county. Ask an employee they don’t know, ask them how you would find out? They don’t know that either. Supermarket supply chains are typically long, complex and convoluted, making it very difficult to obtain and collate the facts about where the products come from, how and where they are processed etc.

Supermarkets seem to be lacking any sense of social or environmental responsibility, their sourcing methods are dubious and their end product often unhealthy and unsustainable. This has been highlighted recently in Huge Fernley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fish fight’ program on channel 4 which has drawn attention to Tesco and their persistence in selling unsustainable tuna. Food waste from supermarkets is just another example of a disrespectful culture, we all read how Tesco wasted over 35,000 tonnes of food in six months last year. Little regard is shown for the health of their consumers, the fair treatment of their suppliers or the environment.

The lack of legislation does not help. There is no legal restriction on the amount of fat, sugar or salt which can be added to food sold in supermarkets for example, no wonder we have an obesity epidemic in the UK. Even health conscious consumers can be fooled, for example, Old El Paso fajita spice mix contains a shocking 59% sugar. Sobering in the extreme.

Supermarkets have become so ingrained in the consumer’s psyche in the UK that we can easily forget that there are other options. I went to my local farmers market this week and every single question I asked was answered politely and enthusiastically. Buying directly from growers ensures they get a fair price for their products, and they are happy to speak to you, discuss the product with you and seem grateful for your interest allowing you to be much better informed about what you are eating.

I am committing to spending less time at the supermarket and more in local shops and farmers markets. No to mention the produce is more often than not cheaper, fresher and of better quality than that found in your local supermarket.
Go ahead, go direct, I promise you won’t regret it.

Further reading


Where do cashews come from?

If you ask most people where sugar comes from, they would probably know, sugar comes from sugar cane, fairly straightforward. But the origins of much of what we eat, are probably a complete mystery.

It sounds odd, how can we eat something when we don’t even know what it is? But we do, take couscous for example, a relatively common foodstuff which can be bought ‘raw’ or ‘cooked’ such as the ever-popular ‘Moroccan couscous’. But if you asked most people what couscous actually is, I doubt many people would know, I certainly didn’t until I looked it up. Couscous hails from North Africa and is made from crushed durum, a type of wheat which is also used to make pasta.

Another type of food that has baffling origins is nuts. Although they are grouped together, they often grow in very different ways and some require bizarre processing methods. All nuts come from shells though right? Wrong! For example, peanuts grown underground in shells, whilst cashews grow on trees as an exterior part of a fruit called a ‘cashew apple’ or ‘drupe’ which are toxic until roasted and are not technically nuts at all!

Cashew ‘apple’ and ‘nut’

Peanut plant showing the nuts which grow underground


There are so many examples of foods we eat every day without really knowing much about where they come from, how they grow or how they are processed. We have become so detached from nature that we do not even know where most of our food comes from. How then can we expect to adequately protect our supply for the future? We can’t.

With so much pollution, deforestation, species loss and climate change we are loosing vital habitat every year and most people do not even realise how much this will affect us on a day to day basis. Many foods we eat come from all over the world, different climates and habitats, with complex relationships with other species, plants, mammals and insects and if we continue at this rate of destruction we will loose parts of these ecosystems which are integral to our food supply.

We have a real supermarket culture in much of the developed world, many people make a weekly trip to a supermarket once per week and blithely buy whatever they fancy the look of. But supermarkets seem to have absolutely no sense of social responsibility, whether it is compounding the national obesity process by adding vast quantities of sugar to readymade products, or selling unsustainably harvested fish. We need to learn for ourselves so we can make educated choices.

So next time you make a trip to the shops, have a look at what you buy and see how much you know about what is in your basket. If you are anything like me, once you start questioning where things come from you will be hooked!

Thanks for reading,



Is ethical consumerism burning a hole in your pocket?

Is it possible to be an ethical consumer AND save money?

I have been learning about ethical consumerism, supply chains and production, and some of my subsequent purchases seem to be getting more expensive. But the more I learn, and the more used to purchasing ethically I become, the worse I feel contemplating purchases that are -to my mind- unethical.

So, can we purchase ethically and save money? Well, some products are easier to save on than others. Clothing for example, I have always loved vintage and if you shop around you can get some amazingly well made pieces, in beautiful fabrics, at a fraction of the price of new, I recently bought a stunning tweed jacket for £30! On top of that your probably supporting a small business, but a word of warning be careful sourcing from vintage shops in London- many are seriously overpriced!

Whilst we are on the subject of second hand, why not try sourcing furniture from flea markets, second hand shops or freecycle? Individual pieces that you can pick up for practically nothing can give your home a lovely, eclectic feel.

So onto food, I love organic, great for you, great for the planet and definitely great for bees but honestly it is more expensive. I sadly cannot afford to shop exclusively organically so I try to box clever. I often choose to buy the cheaper items of my shop organically, so instead of buying organic blueberries I choose organic leeks. I also always try to buy organic dairy and meat as these farms exercise higher welfare standards and try to have a couple of vegetarian days per week. I can then afford to buy higher welfare meat and not bankrupt myself. Having a meat-free day or two per week also helps to cut your carbon foot print considerably, ruminating animals such as cattle produce huge quantities of methane (a damaging greenhouse gas) so decreasing your demand for meat helps the environment.

Another of my stalwart methods of saving money is making do and mending. Learning to sew has been invaluable and I always try to go for quality rather than quantity when buying products, so they last longer. If I can’t mend I will repurpose.

When birthdays roll around, why not make presents? Or if that is not your cup of tea, check out Etsy, you can pick up some beautiful presents which have been repurposed from found objects. I recently bought a necklace made from an illustration from a children’s book called ‘the boy and the badger’, I love it and not only was it recycled but I was helping local business and it was from the UK so low carbon footprint too! Buying local also supports small businesses and can save you a packet on p&p.

So, coming back to my original question, yes you can save money and be an ethical consumer, but even for the slightly more expensive items I would rather feel good about a purchase than save a few pounds and feel like I have sold my ethics short.

Thanks for reading,